Tudor Dixon holds slim lead, GOP race for Michigan governor 'complete toss-up,' poll shows

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Conservative commentator Tudor Dixon holds a slight edge in the Republican primary race for governor with many GOP voters still undecided and former President Donald Trump's potential endorsement looming, according to a poll commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV (Channel 4).

The poll shows Dixon, businessman Kevin Rinke, real estate broker Ryan Kelley and chiropractor Garrett Soldano in a wide open race to be the Republican nominee to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.

Of 500 likely GOP primary voters surveyed July 13-15, 19% said they would vote for Dixon while 15% said Rinke, 13% favored Kelley and 12% backed Soldano. About 2% backed Pastor Ralph Rebandt, while 38% of Republican voters surveyed said they were undecided.

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Dixon's slim lead fell within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

The primary race is a "complete toss-up" with four candidates still having different paths to victory on Aug. 2, said Richard Czuba, founder of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group, which conducted the poll.

Trump could swing the contest if he chooses to endorse in the final days of the campaign, Czuba said.

"Here we are with two weeks to go, and this race is treading water waiting for Donald Trump to decide if he's going to dive in or not," Czuba said.

Among the undecided voters, 63% said a Trump endorsement would be very or somewhat important in helping them choose a candidate, the poll found.

The 500 likely Republican voters polled were surveyed by telephone operators, with 60% of respondents contacted by cellphone from throughout Michigan, according to the Glengariff Group.

All five Republican candidates for governor are running their first campaigns for public office and trying to make themselves known to voters with two weeks left before the primary election.

Dixon of Norton Shores has gained exposure in recent weeks after receiving a string of key endorsements, including the support of Right to Life of Michigan, the DeVos family, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Police Officers Association of Michigan. A political committee called Michigan Families United also launched TV advertisements in June to promote her candidacy.

Tudor Dixon laughs following a debate with other GOP gubernatorial candidates on July 6 in Grand Rapids. She holds a narrow lead in the crowded race, according to a new poll.

Dixon's supporters have contended that she has the best chance to defeat Whitmer, who won her first term in 2018 by nine percentage points over Republican Bill Schuette.

It's an argument that resonates with Republican voter David Flickema of Muskegon, who plans to vote for Dixon.

Dixon has a better chance than other GOP candidates because she can get stronger support from female voters, Flickema said.

"I just want Whitmer out of there," he said.

Other candidates close behind

Still, Dixon's lead over Rinke, Kelley and Soldano is small. And while Rinke is in second place, according to the new poll, his campaign has spent the most on TV ads.

"As the race closes, it's starting to follow the traditional pattern as whoever has the most money starts to move into the lead," John Sellek, CEO of the Michigan-based political consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, said of Dixon and Rinke.

Rinke of Bloomfield Township has previously vowed to spend $10 million of his own money on his campaign and has begun airing an advertisement that says Dixon is "bankrolled by anti-Trump billionaires," a reference to the wealthy DeVos clan in west Michigan.

Candidate Garrett Soldano, Thursday night, May 12, 2022.

Dixon and Rinke have a large advantage over Kelley and Soldano when it comes to the ability to let voters know who they are, a fact that could be crucial with so many voters still undecided, Sellek said.

Dixon has a large lead among primary voters in Metro Detroit, where 29% of poll participants said they supported her and Rinke was in second at 15% in his home region. In the rest of Michigan, Rinke was in first place at 15%, and Dixon was in fourth at 12%.

While Dixon and Rinke lead among voters who have already cast an absentee ballot or plan to in the coming days, Kelley and Soldano have advantages among Election Day voters, a potential sign of hope for them.

Ryan Kelley at a candidate debate on Wednesday, July 6, 2022.

Among those planning to vote on Aug. 2, 16% said they supported Kelley, of Allendale, and 14% said they supported Soldano, of Mattawan. Dixon and Rinke were both getting about 13% of the Election Day voters.

In a tweet on Monday, Soldano labeled polling on the race "hot garbage."

"I’ll take our grassroots army any day of the week, Soldano posted.

Trump's endorsement

Whether Trump will endorse one of the five candidates remains a potentially pivotal question in the Republican primary race for governor.

Overall, more than 60% of likely primary voters said Trump's endorsement would be important in their decision, including 32% who said it would be very important.

"This is Donald Trump's race to win or lose if he chooses to do so," the pollster Czuba said.

Dixon has been among the candidates aggressively seeking Trump's backing, and some of the ex-president's advisers have been helping her campaign.

Trump has spoken positively about Dixon in the past. In February, her campaign held a fundraiser at Trump's Mar-a-Lago property in Florida. During the event, Trump called her "very special."

But Dixon's critics have questioned why an endorsement hasn't come yet and focused on her ties to Betsy DeVos, Trump's former education secretary. DeVos resigned from Trump's Cabinet a day after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol when Trump supporters tried to disrupt the certification of Democrat Joe Biden's 2020 presidential election victory.

DeVos has since acknowledged that she discussed the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment with other Cabinet members to remove Trump before his term ended, according to CNN.

At this point, any of the four Republican candidates at the top of the race can go to Trump and say his endorsement will make a difference for them, Czuba said.

Kevin Rinke participates in a Michigan Republican gubernatorial debate at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

After a debate on Friday morning, Soldano told reporters people had recently spoken to Trump on his behalf.

The timing of a potential decision from Trump changes every 48 hours, Soldano said.

"It's been a knockdown, drag-out fistfight in a phone booth," Soldano said. "And everybody is just waiting for something to happen."

cmauger@detroitnews.com